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Jimmy Walker builds on a breakthrough year at the Tournament of Champions

Jimmy Walker
Kohjiro Kinno / Sports Illustrated
A solid iron player, Walker made 25 straight cuts during a stretch in 2012 and '13.

Seeking more consistency in his long game, Walker cold-called Harmon in April 2012, sending the swing-guru-to-the-stars a text message to ask if they could meet for a range session. "It took three weeks for him to answer back," Walker says. "It was a little discouraging, but in fairness we'd never even talked."

Walker spent a day with Harmon at his swing factory in Las Vegas, and they enjoyed each other's company. In the weeks after, they kept in touch electronically, with Walker sending video of his swings and Harmon responding with his musings. "All of a sudden he went silent on me," Walker says. "Quite a few messages went unreturned."

Erin is a spicy personality and a fierce advocate for her husband. Fed up, she sneaked Harmon's number out of her hubby's phone and dashed off a text. "Jimmy was really bummed about the situation," she says, "so I felt I had to do something.

"I wrote to Butch, 'Look, you don't know me, I'm Jimmy Walker's wife. If you don't want to work for him, just say so. We need to move on.' He got back to me like five minutes later. He said, 'Sorry, I've been busy....' "

Harmon was cowed into putting in long hours with Walker at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte and the following week at the Players. In parting, Walker said, "Butch, I don't know what your deal is with your guys, just tell me what I owe you."

"You don't owe me anything."

So when Walker returned home to San Antonio, he dug around in his wine cellar and found the perfect thank-you gift, which he'd been sitting on for three years: a bottle of 2000 Chateau Margaux, a Bordeaux that sells for up to $1,200. Little wonder that at the end of the year Harmon asked Walker if he'd like to join his stable and work together full-time.

In 2013 Walker married his stellar short game to a career-best 20th in driving distance (298.5 yards) and 61st in greens in regulation, but the new swing remains a work in progress. "We've been trying to get my body and head moving toward the target on the downswing," Walker says. "I have a tendency to hang back and not release the club."

During a second-round 73 at Kapalua, Walker's arms and lower body were out of sequence, and he hit a series of blocks far to the right. After the round he repaired to the range to shoot video, which was beamed to Harmon in Las Vegas. In real time Harmon prescribed a series of drills, including placing an umbrella on the ground next to the ball to force his pupil to swing more down the line. The Walkers had planned to take their sons Mclain (3½) and Beckett (11 months) to the beach that afternoon, but when the practice session ran long the plans were scaled back to a quick trip to the hotel pool. The hard work paid off the next day, as Walker drove the ball beautifully en route to a 67. "It was nice to feel like I was playing golf again," he said.

"He busts his tail," says D.A. Points, Walker's best friend on Tour. "It's not like Jimmy is satisfied because he won one tournament. It's just made him hungrier."

If Walker's motivation wanes, all he has to do is think about the expensive hobbies he and his wife pursue. He is a celebrated astro-photographer who has sunk some $50,000 into his gear, though he's delighted to have recently signed an endorsement deal with Celestron Telescopes. Erin keeps two horses and is a nationally ranked show jumper. "I bring home more trophies than he does," she woofs. In fact, she'll have her own shrine in the house the Walkers are building on nine acres outside of San Antonio. They expect to move in by March, which will cap a tumultuous year and a half that included a high-risk pregnancy that left Erin on bed rest for three months.

With life slowing down a bit, Walker hopes to take time to enjoy all the new opportunities that await. At 47th in the World Ranking he's a lock to get into his first Match Play Championship, and he'll be allowed past the velvet rope and into a World Golf Championship event for the second time -- at Doral in March -- if he can remain in the top 50. He'll make an inaugural trip to the WGC at Firestone, but the biggest whoop of all is Walker's impending first excursion to the Masters, where he'll be a pretty good dark horse pick. "Augusta is perfect for him -- he hits it long and putts great," says Walker's caddie, Andy Sanders. "Of course, that works on most courses."

Walker doesn't try to disguise his ambition, openly coveting a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. (Heading into the T of C, he was seventh on the points list.) "It feels so good to win, you want to do it again and again," he says. He and Erin are already looking forward to a return trip to Kapalua. "I think we'll do things differently," she says. "Next time Jimmy wants to have a little more fun."

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